Civilians and security forces gather at the scene of a car bomb attack in Iraq. (file photo)
The deadliest incident on Monday occurred in the Kurdish populated town of Khanaqin where 30 people were killed and 50 others injured after a bombing targeted a political gathering.
People had gathered to watch television footage of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani casting his ballot in Germany.
“Suddenly we heard a big explosion. I wanted to turn my car around to go back home, but I couldn’t because people were running towards me. Most of their clothes were covered in blood,” a witness said.
According to reports, 27 members of the Iraqi security forces were also killed in a series of bomb attacks across the country on the same day.
With a budget languishing in parliament, crucial reforms on the back burner and a hamstrung private sector, prospects for Iraq’s economy after Wednesday’s election hinge heavily on the oil factor.
Iraq has some of the world’s largest deposits of oil and gas and aims to boost energy production dramatically, but a slow-moving bureaucracy and poor infrastructure are holding it back.
Complicating things further is Baghdad’s long-running dispute with the energy-rich autonomous northern Kurdish region, which has sought to sign deals with foreign firms and export without the express permission of the central government.
Any new government formed after Wednesday’s parliamentary election will have its hands full with these and other challenges.
Crude oil accounts for more than 90 percent of exports and government revenues, and 70 percent of gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Despite calls for Iraq to do more to diversify its economy, oil still fuels the country’s attempts to rebuild after decades of conflict.
“What Iraq should be focusing on is actually developing something more diverse as an economy that’s less dependent on oil production,” said Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa Director for Eurasia Group consultancy.
“The challenge here is, given the security environment, it’s very difficult to achieve that.”
Only one percent of Iraq’s workforce is employed in the oil sector but the industry indirectly supports countless others, with revenues in particular helping to pay salaries in the public sector.
Meanwhile private firms, outside the oil sector, often complain they are hamstrung by an ageing banking system, with few loans available and outdated laws that make it hard to set up or maintain a business.
Rampant corruption and soaring costs due to electricity shortages and deteriorating security also complicate running a business in Iraq, which is mired in its worst period of bloodshed in years.
“Iraq’s economy suffers from structural weaknesses,” said a World Bank report.
It noted that although the oil sector was delivering strong growth, overall economic expansion “has not been broad-based enough to make major inroads on poverty and exclusion.”
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Violence Kills Nearly 50 in Iraq Ahead of Key Vote
Militants on Monday targeted polling stations across much of Iraq and a crowd of Kurds jubilantly dancing on the street as soldiers and security forces cast ballots two days ahead of parliamentary elections, officials said. The attacks, including a suicide bombing northeast of Baghdad, left at least 46 people dead.
The wave of attacks was an apparent attempt to derail the balloting process and discourage the rest of the country’s 22 million registered voters from going to the polls on Wednesday in the first nationwide elections since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The early balloting for police and soldiers is meant to free up the 1 million-strong military and security forces so they can protect polling stations and voters on election day.
More than 9,000 candidates are vying for 328 seats in parliament, which is widely expected to be won by an alliance led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is likely to seek a third four-year term in office.
The day’s worst attack took place in the Kurdish town of Khanaqin, 140 kilometers (87 miles) northeast of Baghdad close to the Iranian border. A suicide bomber walked toward a crowd of Kurds performing a traditional dance and blew himself up, killing at least 25 and injuring 35, many of them in critical condition.
The Kurds were celebrating the appearance on TV of Iraq’s ailing President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who is being treated in Berlin since December 2012 following a stroke. The nearly 80-year-old Talabani was seen sitting in a wheelchair smiling and waving his index finger, stained purple, flanked by clapping relatives. Few details have been released about the severity of Talabani’s illness.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack, which bore the hallmarks of Sunni Arab militants.
Khanaqin is in Diyala province, a region where Arabs and Kurds context territory and where Sunni militants target Shiites and Kurds.
Iraq is experiencing a surge in sectarian violence, with Sunni militants increasingly chiefly targeting security forces, army troops and members of the nation’s Shiite majority. The resurgence of the bloodletting, which nearly tore Iraq apart in 2006 and 2007, underscores the precarious politics of a democratic, but splintered nation.
It also mirrors the three-year-old conflict in neighboring Syria, where the civil war pits forces loyal to President Bashar Assad whose powerbase stems from followers of a Shiite offshoot sect, against mostly Sunni Arab rebels whose ranks are dominated by Islamists and militants from al-Qaida-inspired or linked groups. Iraqi Shiite militiamen fight on the side of Assad’s forces.
Voters in Wednesday’s polls are widely expected to cast ballots along sectarian and ethnic lines.
But balloting will not take place in parts of the vast and mostly Sunni Anbar province west of Baghdad, where al-Qaida spin-off militants control parts of two cities, including the provincial capital, Ramadi.
Beside army troops and police, also voting on Monday were hospital patients, medical staff and detainees.
Abroad, Iraqi expatriates in more than 20 countries will also be able to cast ballots for a second day.
Authorities, meanwhile, announced the closure of Iraq’s air space, saying it will not reopen until after the polls close on Wednesday evening. Already, the government has decreed a weeklong national holiday to coincide with the elections, extending a previously announced three-day break. Such moves were common in past elections, chiefly to empty the streets and allow security forces faster access to attack sites.
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